Olof Palme, private sleuths, and communities of knowledge

by Dennis Lundström

The subject of my master thesis originated from a personal interest of mine, the murder of the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in February 1986. The murder investigation is one of the largest police investigations in history and was closed in June 2020, but a killer is yet to be convicted. In the thirty-plus years since the murder, a wide array of theories on who the killer could be has been put forward. One of the more intensely discussed theories is the “police-conspiracy theory”. This theory, really an umbrella-term describing many different types of observations and theories, became popular enough that the Swedish government ordered a commission to review the murder investigation with a special focus on the police-conspiracy theory.

During a master course on the history of knowledge at Lund, my interest was drawn to questions on how knowledge circulates in society or, more specifically, how information and theories, which is seen as knowledge in a historic context, circulates in that context. In my view, one advantage of the history of knowledge is the understanding that knowledge is more than just scientific knowledge. This view allowed me to analyse how the police-conspiracy theory became a kind of public knowledge in the years after the assassination. Using a theoretical framework based on the history of knowledge and the concept of knowledge circulation, I studied how different actors and processes played a significant role in establishing the police-conspiracy theory.

The civilians most active in researching the different aspects of the assassination have been labelled the, somewhat degrading, term “privatspanare” (private sleuths). In my thesis, I analyse a small group of these private sleuths that worked together to “find out the truth” about the murder. One part of the study is dedicated to one of Sweden’s largest newspapers at the time, Dagens Nyheter. In that segment, I analyze what functions Dagens Nyheter had in the establishing of the police-conspiracy theory in more theoretical terms. The last segment of the thesis is of a more comparative nature and focuses on the state as an actor of knowledge. In this case, the state is represented by two commissions with the mission to review the murder investigation.

My conclusion is that the newspaper Dagens Nyheter did not function as what historians of knowledge defines as a “public arena of knowledge”. Instead, Dagens Nyheter functioned as a valuable tool for different actors to reach out to the public. I can also show that the establishing of the “police-conspiracy theory” in the media was closely linked to the fall from grace of Hans Holmér, the police in charge of the investigation during its first year. Regarding the two commissions, this study concludes that both commissions unwillingly gave the theory legitimacy by even looking into it. Using tools from the history of knowledge and applying them on a material that more often is used in political science was fruitful and seems to loosen up the somewhat stale definitions of “knowledge producer” and “knowledge user”.

The most valuable result of this thesis is the new analytical term “knowledge community”. By studying a relatively small group of “privatspanare” who focused on the police-conspiracy theory, the thesis can demonstrate that these actors were part of a bigger community based around the murder of Olof Palme. This community is based on knowledge actions and transactions of varying kinds. This contradicts a dominating idea in the history of knowledge, that knowledge is communicated through existing private and professional networks. In this example, the community is essentially created by knowledge.

The term “knowledge community” has great general potential for the history of knowledge as it defines a phenomenon that before has been defined as both actor and arena or not defined at all. The study shows that this knowledge community was created as an effect of the process of knowledge circulation, which in itself is a new empirical conclusion.

The master thesis (in Swedish) can be read here: http://lup.lub.lu.se/student-papers/record/9063597

Bild av Frankie Fouganthin – Eget arbete, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100577921

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